Alternate Perceptions Magazine, July 2017
Alabama’s Stone Snake Effigy
A Unique and Unexplained Mystery
by: Dr. Greg Little
Portions of this article come from the new book, Native American Mounds in Alabama.
Among Alabama’s many Native American Indian mound sites, the incredible Moundville complex is clearly the most impressive. But the hundreds of stone mounds and stone walls in the Choccolocco Mountains near Anniston and Jacksonville, Alabama might prove to be more important in an archaeological sense. Among these stone structures is perhaps the most unique and mysterious of all the ancient Native American constructions in the state: the Snake Effigy on Skeleton Mountain.
In 1998 the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers issued a long document entitled, “Final Environmental Impact Statement: Disposal and Reuse of Fort McClellan, Alabama.” The document was intended to analyze the impact of “disposing” over 18,000 acres of mountainous forest and land associated with Ft. McClellan in the hopes of repurposing the vast area after decommissioning the fort. The fort was then primarily involved in Military Police training and chemical training. The fort had wide ranging areas where active weapons firing was routinely conducted along with rocket and ordinance testing. Nuclear, biological, and chemical training was also conducted there, all of which meant that the area had been well secured and off limits to the public. It was established as a military facility in 1898 and expanded when it was renamed Camp McClellan in 1917. In 1929 it was renamed Fort McClellan. The Choccolocco Mountains on the eastern and southern sides of the camp became an artillery test firing range in 1917. There are still areas of the now decommissioned fort that are off limits due to unexploded ordinance. There are numerous Native American stone mounds and structures located in these areas.
In preparation for the future changes at the fort, in 1976-77 the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) conducted an archaeological survey of 4500 acres at the site. The report indicated that a fluted point (described as Paleo-Indian, 10,000-8,000 B.C.) was found at one site; Archaic Period (8000-1000 BC) artifacts were found at 7 sites; 21 sites dated to the Woodland era were recorded (1000 BC-AD 900); and two Mississippian sites yielded artifacts (AD 900-1500). The non comprehensive archaeological investigations conducted there in the 1970s by UAB notably recorded “one earthen mound” and 18 “stone features” in their report.
Among the stone features found by UAB was the Skeleton Mountain stone Snake Effigy. Skeleton Mountain is about 3.25 miles East of downtown Anniston, Alabama. The formation is located on the steep western edge of the mountain. It was noted that portions of the north end of the effigy had been bulldozed into piles, presumably by the military to make small access roads up the mountain. In the 1990s, Dr. Harry Holstein of Jacksonville State University (JSU) visited Skeleton Mountain in another phase of the Fort McClellan project and determined that it was composed of “loose, angular quartzite and limestone cobbles in a raised walkway-like structure” of uniform width and height. It was clearly a serpentine figure, but its exact purpose or intended form isn’t entirely known. In 2004 various tribal leaders, archaeologists, and local officials visited the site and agreed it was a Native American construction. In 2007 JSU began a more detailed investigation.
JSU’s research determined that the structure was not built as a road or causeway, nor for agricultural purposes. It is 196 feet long and located on land impossible to farm or graze animals. The head of the effigy is a triangular pile of stones 3 feet high and about 1.5 feet in height. It resembles a serpent’s head. The body of the figure is a near-uniform 6.5 feet in width and generally extends a foot above the surface. There are other stone features associated with it. One of these is a small conical stone mound, and the other a horseshoe-shaped wall. Holstein believes that the serpent was an unfinished effigy.
In his paper, Holstein wrote, “Researchers believe prehistoric Woodland Indian populations constructed this structure nearly 2,500 years ago as part of their ceremonial/mortuary rituals.” He concluded, “There is agreement between archaeologists, Native Americans, and local citizens that the Skeleton Mountain Snake Effigy is ceremonially and culturally unique to this area.”
Like other effigy mounds in the United States, the exact purposes of the effigy are not understood other than citing the generalized “ceremonial” or “spiritual” functions. Some of the serpent effigies are thought to be aligned to the constellation of Draco, the moon’s movements, the sun, or other stars. One thing is clear. Such ancient constructions merit protection and reverence. The Skeleton Mountain Stone Serpent should be considered as both a National Historic site as well as a potential tourist attraction.
Reconstruction of the Skeleton Mountain Snake Effigy, by Carol Hicks from Native American Mounds in Alabama